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Spring/Summer 1995, Volume 12.2

Fiction

 

Dipti Ranjan Pattanaik

The Man Who Ran: A Modern-Day Parable


Dipti Ranjan Pattanaik is a lecturer in English at College of Takatpur, Barpidada Orissa, India. His essays have appeared in the
Journal of Commonwealth Literature and Indian Literature, among others. He has also published short stories in the Indian journals Jhankara, Nkshanta, Syamantaka, and Katha.  See other work published in Weber Studies by Dipti Ranjan Pattanaik:  Vol. 14.3.

 

In the Land of Victory there was a man named Sanatan who ran for a living. Initially, this question of living was far from his mind. As a young boy, he had somehow picked up a funny notion that if you run, you live longer. If you run faster, you can beat time in its own game of flux and disintegration. Even the stories his grandmother told him to lull him into sleep during some obstinate nights did him no good. For one of his most favorite bed-time stories was about the king, and his granny assured him—through that story—again and again that the king also ran! His young imagination was kept riveted to the images of the running king, the flowing streams, the flying birds, the swinging branches of the trees, and in his worst nightmares, his own bed hooked onto a speeding vastness called the universe. He would desperately clutch at the body of his grandma during those nightmares with a piercing voice which invariably broke the old woman's sleep. In the dead of the night too, he would ask, "Granny, does the king really run?"

"Yes," his grandma would mumble in half-sleep, "You go to sleep, or you may be late for School tomorrow."

"But he has runners and wealth!" Sanatan would persist.

"It's not a question of having wealth, or men, or anything really."

"Does he want to beat time then?"

"He has all the time and glory, too. He loves running that is all. Maybe he wants to set an example. He loves runners."

"Then the king will love me, for I am a runner already."

"Don't be so foolish. One begins by going to School, doing things at the right time. You don't even sleep properly at night. Go to sleep fast; running is a tough game."

Like all boys of his age, Sanatan never liked discipline of any kind. He just tolerated his grandma for her story-telling abilities. He did not care much for his parents, except when his mother gave him a hug for doing well in examinations and his father some toys to play with. Mostly his mother remained busy with so-called household chores, and his father remained away from home. Nobody seemed to have any time for his doubts. And the answers which his grandmother gave to his questions seemed so dated, old fashioned, fraught with superstition. He wanted to know more about the king, about running and about the lands that lay beyond those hills and cliffs of the Land of Victory. His father usually brushed his queries aside in a gruff manner, while he changed his sweaty vest after one of those pointless outings. His mother did not fail to chide him for his lack of interest in home-work, when confronted with her son's doubts about the land beyond the cliff, the capital where the king lived and the mystery of movement and speed. But Sanatan could never understand what good School ever did to anyone or those moribund household chores his mother kept on doing interminably.

The dreary monotony of his days rolled on until, one day, one of his teachers let him into the skill of running. He also told him that one can run on one's own. After that fateful day, going to School became a great experience for Sanatan. Not because the classes were interesting; or the friends who never tired of playing monotonously on the slide, where you had to laboriously climb a stiff ladder in order to merely come down to where you began—in a sand pit—only to get for a second or two a gut joy that seared your body down to the marrow, up to the root of the hair in your skin; not because of the teachers who were tyrannical: but because he could be alone, entirely alone to himself. Alone on that road to School, the road that lay beside those lovely cliffs where in enchanting valleys of moonlight the fairies often came down to dance in sheer abandon. How sad that moonlit nights were also enveloped by caves and trees of darkness. And he had to cling on to the hem of his grandma's saree out of fear, yes, fear, but more out of habit. But when the morning came, and the sunlight glistened on the chaffy-cotton softness of half-dissolved clouds, and the joyful raucous cacophony of bird-song filled the receding emptiness of the tired cricket-voices of night, Sanatan was all agog and prompt in kicking off the hesitant smell of drowsy creases of the bed-sheet and the docile furrows of cushion that held one back.

His change was there for all to see and be happy about. Every slight change brought happiness to the staid world of his family. And Sanatan's love for School, to be fair to all parties, was a change that bordered on the phenomenal. Like all unsuspecting parents who swear by the unique honesty of their own children, even from the profound certainty which only ignorance can bestow, Sanatan's parents never knew that his interest lay not in the School, but on the way, the journey, the in-between. He used the way to his best advantage—running all the way, not in the hurried gulping of distances which would have left him confronting the closed doors of the School before the watchman, but running forwards, backwards, sideways, maybe sometimes as monotonously as the slide game the kids played in the park, but more according to the spontaneous dictates of his heart which whispered when all other noise was stilled in the tautness of running.

Sanatan carried on his running through the days in School up to the days of adulthood—running forwards, backwards, sideways, up and down, all the while innovating, innovating, innovating till he was picked up by the king's messengers to act as a mail-carrier, a runner to carry messages from place to place. One had to confront the dangers of beasts of prey, landslides and robbers, while performing that duty. So, apart from the thrill, there was this challenge and the possibility of promotion, a special favor granted to the runners. Then, Sanatan really started to run for a living. And he lived well, negotiated dangers, and enjoyed the occasional freedom of spontaneity and the dull clawing of the senses whose nervous energy spent itself waiting for a prize in the future hyphenated by time. He gradually let himself be seized by the occasional fear of denial and the boredom of waiting while time unwinded its own labyrinth of indulgent mockery, before he was finally crowned, in the capital city, as the best runner of the kingdom in the annual festival, the "Bowl of Gems."

Like all hopefuls who trust their future, Sanatan merely had a vague idea of the imminent prize. When he heard of the canonization, he felt cheated like an ambitious king after a new conquest. On the fateful day, he was like a lamb for slaughter waiting for the inevitable to be done away with as fast as possible. There was only the hope of being able to see the king. But after reaching the "Bowl of Gems," he learned that the king never came to festivals. Sanatan would have dissolved into his own sense of fatigue and broken promise but for the sudden gift of love by the most beautiful lady of the kingdom. He tried to connect her with the contours of the vague notions of a prize. And he felt the happiness which occasionally matched the dazzling intensity of a firework—bursts of happiness that occur to beauty when it tries to possess success.

His marriage went off smoothly, too smoothly, and in its peaks of strainless love—in short stretches punctuated by time—it resembled the spontaneity of a run. He could have felt happy, but for the fact that slowly he was receding from the running. The waiting, the prize, the boredom—all had drained his muscles of much of the sap that produced the joyful spontaneous run. His runs too often got cluttered up with hope, nervous expectation, and the noises that tended to stifle the jet-voice of his heart which fired only in moments of absolute aloneness. This solitude turned into burdensome loneliness that grew in density with each attempt to erase that by drowning in the voluptuous softness of his wife's beauty, like the languorous early morning bed of his childhood. The growing knowledge of her power over him inflated her and diminished his own sense of worth in the eyes of both. He was slowly descending into a labyrinth of desperation where all loneliness seeks the assurance of company and all companionship gives rise to more intense solitude.

Running helped him no more. He had bargained away the purity of movement for more ephemeral joys of stasis and concreteness. And those were the days when there were enough takers for concreteness and ocular manifestations of profit and happiness. In fact, young men had already started competing with him for the position of the chief runner of messages. There had been a mushroom growth of beauties in the kingdom who threatened to distort the harmony of his domestic atmosphere, which was wearing off anyway for want of the thrill of youth, success and the flamboyance of beauty. The denouement came soon. The next decade, the next great carnival, there was a new canonization, a new definition of success and beauty and happiness, which changes with time, inevitably. Sanatan was appalled. Not that he was sorry, for the event freed him from the need to prove himself, which in a sense gave him something resembling joy. But at the same time, he had gotten used to the comforting eddies of limelight and convention. Freedom terrified him. It terrified him into those childhood traumas of nightmare of being hooked on to a speeding vastness. The difference was: now the fear was real, palpable, and he had left behind in time the comforting reassurance of grandmotherly wisdom of making a meaning, even at least a superstitious one out of seeming emptiness.

Now, he was again lost to time. But unlike the ecstatic cessation of time in running, now there was decay and degeneration. For Sanatan, morning was dissolved into day, day was erased by night. Weeks passed; months; years were merely a succession of diurnal whirlwinds of eventlessness. And all along he was dying, dying, dying, but never dying really. For even death seemed one of those meaningless events in time which threatened to give birth again to those horrors of life he was exposed to now. For him, now the universe had shrunk into a blank crumpled page of suffering and lodged in the most uncomfortable crevice of the heart. Success, love, beauty, happiness, spontaneity, and even suffering lay like offerings to a God in discredit. He lay in a limbo and stupor of emotionlessness till he decided to end it all, as if an end was possible so out of time. But probably the thought of death was one of those insights that lay hidden in his being, right from the moment when life started. Only time had cast a transparent shadow when he did not want to believe in the reality of death.

Sanatan chose the cliff, which was the site of all his tales of grandeur and authenticity. Perhaps, death was also going to be another such moment of authentic expanse, of crucial reckoning diluted by the fact that he could never meet the king, nor win his love, despite the success, the effort and the glory that time granted him briefly. Another epiphanic moment of clarity before the final plunge which might give him, one last time, the tautness of running.

And then he saw the dot. In the distant horizon beyond the cliff, he saw a dot which grew before his eyes with each passing moment. The instinctive pure joy that lay dormant in him for so long that he had forgotten about it confirmed the dot on the horizon. It was the king, running forward, backward, sideways, up and down, emanating joy and light. Sanatan was filled with peace and happiness and realized the evanescence of death and time. He ran with the surprise of suddenly stumbling upon an old skill and was gathered by movement and speed.

 

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